Happy Birthday, Vera Rubin!

Pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin was born on this day in 1928. A recipient of the United States' National Medal of Science, she confirmed the existence of dark matter, a mysterious type of cosmic matter that physicists are still studying today.

Rubin graduated from Vassar College in 1948 as the only astronomy major in her class, but was rejected by Princeton's graduate astronomy program as they did not admit women (and wouldn't for another several decades). Instead, she went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees from Cornell and Georgetown Universities.

As a scientist and researcher at Georgetown University and the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, Rubin gathered the most compelling evidence to date for the existence of dark matter. Working with colleague Kent Ford, Rubin studied spiral galaxies, specifically the galaxy Andromeda. Rubin and Ford discovered that spiral galaxies rotate more quickly than they should be able to, without flying apart, based on what we can see they are made of. The existence of dark matter—an invisible, currently undetectable matter—had been previously proposed in astronomy, and Rubin's research all but confirmed it. The existence of dark matter would explain why spiral galaxies can rotate so quickly: the gravity of the enormous amount of dark matter in the galaxies holds them together. According to current estimates, about 26.8% of the known universe is comprised of dark matter, showing how monumental Vera Rubin's research was.

For resources on outer space and galaxies, check out our Star Search, Black Holes, and Looking into Space lessons and the Sizing Up the Universe tool. To learn more about Vera Rubin, take a look at the National Science Foundation's National Medal of Science page or this piece on Brain Pickings

Image credit: Carnegie Institution of Washington


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